To the lighthouse
First published in The Sunday Age, M Magazine
A naturally light-filled home means daylight saving all year round. Michael Green visits an illuminating Malvern renovation.
Andrea Arendsen and husband Matthew used to live in a dark and dreary Malvern house. “It was gloomy because there was no light,” she says. “No light could get in because there were no windows.”
Arendsen is sitting at a neat wooden dining table, in a large, bright, living and kitchen area – it’s hard to believe this radiant Victorian cottage is the same home. Her summery blonde bob is bathed in natural light and her young son Christian rests on her knee. Four glass doors concertina open to a small, sunny courtyard.
In 2007, after eight years in their dark house, the couple decided to renovate. They engaged Albert Mo and his firm Architects EAT, and asked for more space and light. “We couldn’t have people over because it was just too small,” Arendsen explains. “But we didn’t want an extension which was a square box on the back of the house.”
Mo is sitting at the table, too, leaning back in his chair and gossiping with his client like an old friend. His concept was for a factory-style sawtooth roof, low over the kitchen section and angling up either side, with highlight windows gleaming down from the ‘teeth’.
The unusual roofline illuminates the extension. “Ceilings are normally just flat, white ceilings, but this one has got a profile almost like a wing that wants to take off. It gives a lighter feel to the house,” Mo says.
As well as the living area, the renovation added a study nook, a laundry and an ethereal bathroom. Tiled only in white, with a bright skylight flooding the shower, it sparkles like a bleach marketer’s paradise.
Mo says that for his firm, natural light is a priority in every residential project. And that’s not just at the extremities, where windows normally shed light, but also throughout the house.
The advantages are stark. “From a practical and sustainable point of view, you don’t need to use artificial lighting throughout the day,” Mo says. “In summertime, you can have plenty of daylight coming in until eight o’clock, if you’ve got good skylights.” He believes there’s another, less tangible benefit too. “It’s kind of a weird thing, but you just feel healthier when you have natural light.”
The Evandale Road home presented a few problems. It’s on a long, narrow block, very close to the neighbours on either side. Heritage overlay frontages meant that any renovation couldn’t be visible from the street.
Initially, the Arendsens wanted to build a second storey, but Mo talked them out of it – the upstairs space would be very small, after setting back from the street and from the houses on either side. “Part of the architects job is to educate the client, through discussion, meetings and site visits,” Mo says.
The couple agreed with his advice and built the sawtooth roof. “I love being able to see the sky so much,” Arendsen says, as her toddler Christian generously offers Mo biscuits from his bowl. “It’s a bit deceptive because from the front you could be in another small Victorian [cottage] and then you get a surprise when it’s so light and open down this end.”
Albert Mo, Architects EAT
In 2000, just after graduation, Thomas Pai rang fellow Melbourne University architecture students Albert Mo and Eid K. Goh. Did they want to do something before they all got jobs? Yes, they said, and Architects EAT began.
Mo, now 32, was born in Hong Kong and later lived in Singapore, before coming to Melbourne to study in 1992. In those crowded, mixed cities he first dreamt of designing more liveable urban spaces.
It was a good idea – years on, his practice has been a big success. In 2007, the firm’s Windsor Loft project won the Belle Apartment of the Year and this year, their design for the Maedaya Bar in Richmond won the Interior Design Award for Hospitality.
Mo says that Architects EAT are interested in the phenomenology of design – the way we experience the building materials through touch, sound and sight, as well as through the mix of natural light and shadow.
He recently renovated his Richmond house with his wife, also an architect. Is it well lit? “I have to practise what I preach,” he says, laughing. “We do have skylights. They are something I definitely cannot do without.”
Let there be skylight
Skylights can let in more than three times the light of a same-sized vertical window, according to yourhome.gov.au. They save energy, make life easier for your eyes and come in all kinds, sizes and prices – from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.
Plastic dome skylights are opaque bulges that set into your roof. They have shafts that lead to a diffuser panel in the ceiling, giving soft, even light. Tubular skylights are similar, but smaller. The tube’s reflective silver lining directs the sunlight downwards and into the room.
Roof windows – panes of glass punched through the roof – are a more expensive option. They’re most popular in attic rooms, but also work with a shaft on flat ceilings. Some models can open to let heat out on hot days.
Custom glass roofs are even more stylish, and yet more expensive. Architects will design these in any shape or size. Highlight windows can also be placed high up on walls – like in the Evandale house – to beam in natural light.